The weekend matters a lot ... but not the way you think.
It was jarring, after 11 years of ministry, attending a worship service I hadn’t helped plan. For over a decade I had brainstormed teaching series, collaborated with the worship pastor, and crammed every announcement, offering, baby dedication, music set, and sermon into our allotted service time. But when God called me out of full-time ministry and I sat on the other side of the pulpit, I realized both in the weekend service, and in church life as a whole, there were some misconceptions I’d had as a leader. I know when I was a pastor, I was always craving feedback from people seeing our church through a fresh set of eyes, so here are three things I see differently as a church attendee.
I need help being still, not busy
If every culture has its own idols then one of America’s idols is busyness. We are addicted to going, going, going, and as a father of two young (insanely hyperactive) kids who is trying to build a business from scratch while also being a good husband, I find myself caught up in this addiction. By the end of the night, I flip on the television largely just to create more noise, because silence has become an uncomfortable companion I resent.
This obviously doesn’t go along with the recurring command in the Bible to “be still and know I am God,” to meditate on God’s word, to escape the tyranny of productivity and be in communion with God, to live under a yoke that is easy and light. As I reflect back on my time in ministry, I realize that rather than melting down the golden calf of busyness, I pulled an Aaron and held it up and said, “no this is the god who rescued you from Egypt.” Instead of rejecting busyness and stress and hurry, I told people, in effect, to become busy and stressed and hurried...but for God.
One of my biggest focuses during our weekend service wasn’t “how can I create space for our congregation to hear from God?” But “how can we shove everything we need to tell them into our gathering?” I was repeatedly calling people to a new activity, class, or serving event. And while I’m not suggesting any of these activities are wrong, it’s worth asking. When do we teach people to “be still”? How can we tell them to create quiet spaces in their life when our programming doesn’t model that?
- We could create space between worship songs to reflect on what God might be saying, instead of rushing from one seamless musical transition to the next.
- Schedule a session at the next men’s, women's, or adults retreat to talk about silence and solitude, and then send people out to do it.
- Look at the commitments we're asking the people of our church to make and encourage simplicity.
What if, in other words, we programmed stillness?
Small groups aren’t the end-all discipleship answer
There was a time in my ministry where my entire discipleship strategy was to “get people into small groups.” But now, as someone regularly attending a small group, I realize how foolish this was. My small group is a great source of community, but in the amount of time we gather is limited to getting home from work, eating dinner, getting the kids out the door, and then on the back end getting them home for bedtime. In our small group, we barely have time for some basic questions and a few prayer requests. In our life stage, discipleship through our small group is barely existent, and I’m one of the more qualified small group leaders our church has!
Beyond the time limitations, many churches who lean on the small group system are always looking for more leaders, which means the bar of expectation is perilously low. At a megachurch I worked for, the pitch for small group leaders was “just set out snacks, pop in the DVD, and ask questions.” And while this is a fine first step for a disconnected church attendee to take, there was no intentional discipleship plan past this.
Somehow, in 11 years of ministry, I was too busy putting out fires to step back and ask “what is discipleship? How are we intentionally turning people into fully committed followers of Jesus? Is our small group strategy really about creating disciples, or is it an easy-bake strategy for church growth?”
These are all deeply uncomfortable questions, and I don’t think there’s a “right” answer. Instead, I think your church leadership needs to dial in with crystal clear clarity what discipleship looks like, then create systems that intentionally guide people along the path. One answer could be creating one-on-one mentoring programs or a class on a discipleship topic that has small group discussion included. Or the entire church could go through a 30-day devotional together with the weekend messages teaching people how to have their own time with God.
I need the weekend service more than ever
Okay, so I always felt like the weekend service mattered, but usually because it was a great place to evaluate my success as a leader. If attendance or giving were up, I felt an accomplishment - for myself and our staff team. Did people respond to my sermon’s action step? Did the new sermon series video go over well?
But now that I’m an average church member, the service matters for a different reason: I just need to be around my spiritual family, worship together, hear about God, and be encouraged. There have been many weeks I have shown up to a service disgruntled, tired, angry, beat down, worn out, or confused, and then left feeling encouraged, hopeful, and centered on Christ. Oftentimes, this happened not because the music was amazing or the preaching brilliant, but because being at a church that is pursuing God as best as we know how is contagious and encouraging.
As a church attendee I might be seeing church from a different seat than ever before. But as a leader worn out by the non-stop barrage of “next Sunday,” I needed the weekend service for the same reasons as I need them now - and I think you might, too. When I was on church staff, even attending another church was not a week off. I was constantly analyzing processes, critiquing delivery styles, and taking notes on building layout. What I wish I knew before, is we can allow attendance, giving, engagement, and any other metrics we want to measure teach us how to better reach and grow disciples. But we always need our church family to stand alongside us as we worship, serve and pursue God together.